The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a culmination of nearly 300 years of racial injustice and inequality on mainland America and, later, the United States. This movement, like most mass movement, did not happen overnight; rather, it took the momentum built by centuries of frustration and a realization that the inequality underlying the foundations of America was unsubstantiated. The work of organizations like the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were the fruits of their ancestor’s labor and oppression. When people think of the civil rights movement, they think of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who was made a martyr by the white establishment and celebrated as a prophet of racial equality. I contend that this myopic perception of King as the embodiment of civil rights is misguided and downplays the efforts of hundred of civil rights workers. I will display King’s personality and his development as one of the members of the civil rights movement. In concluding my analysis of the civil rights movement, I will respond to data referring to modern day social and economic patterns pertaining to race and how these are affected by civil rights legislation.
Martin Luther King Jr. Can be analyzed as a leader and as an individual in two distinct stages of his life. The first stage would be his official entrance into the civil rights fray, which started in 1955 and went approximately until the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the culmination of this stage of his life. The second stage of King’s leadership and his involvement with the movement can be seen following the passage of the 1964 act until his assassination in April 1968. These are two distinct periods in his life where King’s values changed and his commitment to the cause and his priorities became vastly different. The first stage of King’s life can be referred to as a cautious entry into a world that did not really want his leadership.
Martin Luther King was a young pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in February 1960 when he was thrust into the lunch counter sit-ins in Montgomery, Alabama, on February 25th. He saw first hand the symbols of defiance and the acts of protest at these lunch counters and kept a strong face in the midst of conflict. However, underneath his austere appearance was a maelstrom of doubt and uncertainty. The young pastor was not certain he wanted to get involved with such a controversial and uncertain movement when he had a parish to attend to and a family to be part of. His uncertainty was a negative attribute and contributed to the insinuation in David Garrow’s book “Bearing the Cross” that King was perhaps much more moderate than people believe today, at least in the early stages of his career.
This can be seen in an example from Garrow that would be surprising to most modern observers, but falls in line with his early moderate stands in the movement. Garrow makes reference to King’s feelings on Vice President, and presidential candidate, Richard Nixon and his stances on civil rights. King believed that Nixon was much more willing to yield toward civil rights in legislation and would put some presidential clout behind new legislation, a great departure from President Eisenhower. King’s tacit endorsement of Richard Nixon, in the face of endorsements by many civil rights groups for John Kennedy, is proof against the legacy that King was always a liberal firebrand.
Another negative characteristic that can be fond of the early King period is his non-congruency of communication between the media and the members of the movement, most specifically during the Freedom Rides. In meetings with movement lieutenants and leaders, King was unrestrained in his want of an all out mobilization of protestors to intensify the rides to the point where desegregation of public transportation would be mandated. In discussions with the media, however, King softened his stance and said there would be a slowing of the protests. Moreover, he said that there had been a victory won just in the fact that the issue was now in the national spotlight. This type of waffling and meandering of feelings was characteristic of King early in his involvement, attributed in my opinion to his uncertainty to what he wanted to do and where he thought the movement should be going.
King wasn’t a total failure early on and was not just a flawed individual, but had many great traits that would bloom in later years. One such attribute was his ability to weave together a fine tapestry of personalities into one common cause. The example I will use is his ability to bring black community leaders and movement leaders together in Birmingham for mass demonstrations. The problems facing the movement in Birmingham included awkward situations of having two city governments seeking legitimacy following elections as well as dangerous amounts of antipathy by local black leaders about the commitment of demonstrations of desegregation. King was masterful in assuring local leaders that the demonstrations and sit-ins were fruitful and were serving their purpose, and gained the support of local businessman A.G. Gaston and the Baptist Minister’s Conference. Despite injunctions leading from this, King had created a coalition of forces that would continue to build in sharing a common cause.
Another attribute that King brought to the movement was a want of non-violent change, in the same vein as Mohandas Ghandi. King’s beliefs were illustrated in his book, “Strive toward Freedom.” His chapter on the “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” is the crux of King’s beliefs about mass demonstration and the way to instigate change. In essence, King described the bus boycott in Montgomery and how the nonviolent protests of blacks would be as valuable a tool as any that were at their disposal. King’s desire for nonviolence was a foundation for all of his actions and the way he progressed with the movement up until his assassination.
The early King can be seen as mild mannered, wary of putting life on the line for the uncertain civil rights movement, and can be construed as a moderate member of the civil rights movement. This would change over time with Martin Luther King. The moment that can be pinpointed as the transition of the moderate King to the radical, hungry-for-change King would be the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act, in summary, sought to create a level playing field by eliminating discrimination of race as part of criteria for employment, a serious improvement from the Jim Crow laws of the past century. I feel that King became much more urgent about not only the furthering of the civil rights movement but also the enforcement of all of these policies. King wanted more from the movement and pushed for more and his personality changed to fit this new urgency.
King seemed more willing to speak out against criticisms against him by federal government officials, most specifically J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Hoover had called King “one of the lowest characters in the country” and a “most notorious liar,” in an effort to discredit King and the movement. The FBI and Hoover’s words held strong weight in the white community, so border line whites may have been swayed by Hoover’s summation. King, not willing to sit back any longer, stated that he would not engage in such unfounded debate with Hoover and that his main objective and impetus behind his words were most likely the pressures of running such an influential office. His willingness to speak out and to engage in a rebuttal with the director of the FBI, amidst questions about his personal life and political ambitions, showed a new found bravery by King. This courage can be seen as a result of what was thought to be a major legislative victory for the civil rights movement in 1964.
King’s leadership skills became more refined as the years passed and experiences plentiful. These skills were exemplified during the protests to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Selma, Alabama. Even with King in jail, the protests against voting segregation and the marches on the city courthouse were directed mostly by King’s mandates. Some of his initiatives included personal visits by the Johnson administration and the governor’s office to Selma, posting bond for staff members, and keeping activity alive in Selma every day in order to maintain their voice. The initiatives put forth by King changed the focus of the movement in Selma; previously, Andrew Young had mentioned that the movement’s focus might have needed to be directed elsewhere. In this sense, King was very much a strong voice in the movement in the mid-1960s.
The negatives that pervaded King’s personality were related to his change in political association. Previously, King the moderate was very interested in focusing on helping others but also wanted the movement to incorporate biracial interests and wanted to work within the system. King was overwhelmed but also realized that this was his calling, to help the civil rights movement. He knew he had others surrounding him to take up for some of the work and that he was not the only one embroiled in such a movement. It can be seen that his personality became much more radical, much more pessimistic, and the focus of his political and social ambitions had become very broad, perhaps too broad for the means that were valuable to him.
The underlying negative that stuck with King was not really a part of his personality but a result of his work ethic. Depression and fatigue constantly beleaguered King at every turn, forcing him to cancel some speeches and appearances in order to recharge. This mental and physical exhaustion led to another undesirable characteristic of King, one that came to him near the end of his life. Pessimism became a part of King’s mantra, coming to fruition in several statements King made near the end of his life about the state of society. The changes made during the period where legislation came about “did very little to improve the lot of millions of Negroes in the teeming ghettos of the North.” King was obviously in bouts of depression when such comments came about; this man was at one time one of the beacons of optimism and promise in the civil rights movement.
In the midst of his physical and mental fatigues, King expanded his statements on the civil rights movement to include a need to improve the plight of all urban poor as well as influencing the course of the Vietnam War toward a peaceful resolution. King saw the war and the plight of the urban poor as maladies of American society that were results of corruption and poor moral foundations. King called for all draft-aged men to consider themselves conscientious objectors when called to draft and wanted peace talks and a cease fire in Vietnam. This, of course, had racial undertones since many African Americans were being sent to Vietnam despite having very little in the way of rights otherwise. The right to dies seemed to be all that black men had.
The urban poor issue was an issue of race but King wanted that expanded to embrace all urban poor, black and white alike. After seeing the poverty that existed in both the North and the South, King’s opinions of American capitalism and a seemingly elitist economy grew dimmer. The feelings of the movement, especially King, can be summarized by a statement on mass civil disobedience made by King: “We (SCLC) must work out programs to bring the social change movements from their early and now inadequate protest phase to a stage of massive, active, non-violent resistance to the evils of the modern system…Our economy must become more person-centered than property-centered and profit-centered…”
This stage of resistance was argued amongst members of the movement, with some wanting more moderate approaches and others, like King, who need something disruptive to bring about change. This movement, referred to as the Poor People’s Campaign, had many difficulties and embodied the turmoil that existed within the general movement and King himself.
Looking at both stages of King’s life and the ways he handled his participation in the civil rights movement, there is need to refer to the statement made in Garrow’s book, “The movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement.” What does this mean exactly? I feel that this means that the movement could have existed without King and made King more of a celebrity and martyr than he would have been if left to his own devices and his own destiny. His personality and his passions early in adulthood would have steered him toward a pastor’s life and a simple family life. The movement enveloped King in its grasp and made King what he has become: a martyr for the cause of justice and equality.
What significance did King have then if he was not the epicenter for the movement’s energies? His significance was his development into a leader for the movement and the impressive manner in which he talked and presented the movement to the public can be seen as his legacy. A charismatic and fiery leader like King, who tried to fuse justice, Christian doctrine, and social equality, was necessary for such a movement to survive the rigors of the status quo. King’s feeling that the movement should be expanded was probably a bit beyond the means of the movement but was probably the next logical step after implementation of civil rights legislation. In short, King was probably ahead of his time as far as his ambitions, but his real contributions were his ability to promulgate the movement in his words and actions. However, he was not THE embodiment of the movement; rather, it was a work of many different groups and coalitions.
So what are the results of the civil rights movement and the legislation that came of it? It is difficult to measure the effects of a single act of legislation, especially those that cover such broad and ambiguous areas as work place discrimination and fair housing. In studying data relating to quality of life, economic, and social issues, there seems to still be a despicable disparity between African Americans and whites, I feel that this is not an effect of the civil rights movement or a failure of this movement to promulgate its message; rather, I believe that in large part the blame would have to be placed on an infrastructure of inequality that is bred by modern American capitalism and forces of commercialization.
In looking at the civil rights movement through the eyes of Garrow as well as in past readings I have done on the subject, the movement can be seen as a hodgepodge of black organizations, congregation based organizations, and some support from black and white moderates. The establishment of coalitions and a common cause brought together many different faces going down the same road. Frustration and disorganization were abound and were to be expected with such a mixture of personalities and differing degrees of agenda. Even a man the likes of King couldn’t possibly bring together a foolproof and efficient organization to combat difficult and historically rooted issues. The movement was not to blame for what we see today in empirical data.
The real blame has to fall on the development of American society and economics since the nation’s inception. It is hard to argue with historical fact; slavery brought millions to the Americas and was accepted until the mid-19th century and was practiced de jure until the mid-20th century. When black slaves were freed, they gained their freedom in a very narrow sense. Economic and social freedom was still prohibited by Jim Crow laws and deep rooted prejudice that came about because of the idea that blacks were inferior and needed to be subjected as labor. Economic handcuffs like the crop lien system and sharecropping forced many blacks and poor whites into debt to rich white patricians in the South.
The movement to “free” the blacks from their informal economic shackles was a century in waiting and the movement did what it could with the little knowledge it had of civil disobedience. What did black men and women know of disobedience and protest? They, for the most part, were oppressed and expressed little furor publicly over their situation until the mid-1950s. In this short analysis, the conclusion that it is impressive how the civil rights movement came together in such a short period of time and forced such large legislative steps can be drawn. The movement sought examples such as Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery in order to bring the need for civil rights reform into the legal and media spotlight. In essence, the movement used all that it could and experimented in disobedience and using the legal system in order to attempt to impose change on the country.
The movement evolved into something that it would have not imagined at its inception: the Black Panther party can seen as the heirs to the civil rights throne. This very informal network of black militant radicals sought to change society and impose “black power” on a system of white hierarchy. This development changed the face of the civil rights movement. The movement’s purpose had gone from a peaceful reworking of social stratification into a forceful and violent destruction of white culture and the establishment of black power as dominant. This dialectical relationship obviously never developed into anything major scale, because the Black Panther Party faded in the mid-1970s. What came of the Panthers, however, is the fear by conservative pundits that social change and mass movements can turn violent when things go wrong. This is a fear realized in the Panthers and can be seen as a reality in mass movements to this day.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 were mere legislative gems and proofs of victory for the civil rights movement but were very difficult to enforce, especially by a federal government at odds with itself. While President Johnson appeared to be the great savior of civil rights following Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson faced difficulties with the FBI and Hoover, who felt the civil rights movement and King in specific were dangerous to the nation. This feeling was much akin to McCarthyism in the 1950s, which also involved Hoover spearheading efforts to rid the country of subversive elements and attempting to discredit what he saw as state enemies. Johnson faced difficulty in the Senate and House, both still fairly conservative and both having difficulties handling legislation that would upset Southern constituencies. The fact that this legislation got through was probably a miracle save for the bullying tactics of Lyndon Johnson. Enforcement was not really a concern of the federal government and was seen as another concession to a group that was already getting a lot in the eyes of the government.
In looking at the modern developments of race in America, it can be observed that there is a lethargic attitude by many, especially in the upper class, toward the pleas of an unequal playing field. To answer this argument, the real purpose behind civil rights is the equal provision of opportunity, not the equal guarantee of results. The latter is what is now called affirmative action, a point of argument between liberals and conservatives. The statistics show obvious areas of non-congruency as far as social data goes between whites and blacks. Why not resort to affirmative action in order to level out the playing field and provide opportunities for all races, not just those who happen to be white? This again raises the ire of many conservatives who feel that those who are qualified and happen to be white get slighted because of employment and enrollment quotas.
Affirmative action, in my opinion, is a necessary evil in that it provides opportunities for those who are injured by their race and social standing and are doomed to repeat a vicious cycle of being subjected to economic slavery. Proof of this point can be seen in evidence gathered in terms of where blacks and whites stand socially. Two times as many whites as blacks complete four or more years of higher education, indicative of the pressures that are placed on minorities in the American higher education system. But even before this, there is a need for some form of affirmative action to ensure results for minority children. 60% of black women led households live in the central city section of cities across America, an area typically less affluent and rid of any resources that may have existed previously; this number compares with a mere 27% white women led households in the inner city. There are obviously some changes that can be made if society is unwilling to notice the need for equal opportunity; if we want a level playing field actions such as affirmative action need to be taken.
The civil rights movement changed the face of modern mass movements in American in that it started from scratch with little precursor except for the centuries of injustice that its members faced amongst each other. Fellowship and honor developed as part of the movement and were driving forces in the civil rights movement. When the movement faced adversity, they resorted to their unity in trying to free themselves in American society, despite differing personal agendas. Men like Martin Luther King, Jr., were not gods among men, but were parts of the movement as a whole and provided different assets to the entire movement. They provided legislative and public examples of victory for the black population in America, providing hope to those who had no hope for many years. The results we see today are not very heartening; for example, in all four regions of the nation, the amount of black people as a multiple of white persons in regards to those below the poverty line is approximately 2.5 to every one white person. With numbers like these, it is very difficult to have an optimistic outlook at the future of race relations in America. But we can look at our predecessors and always hold out hope that the next mass movement will come along and point out the importance of creating equality in America, whether it be fixing the result or actually enforcing the law.